The aim of the present study was to compare the relationship of morphologically defined non-bulging/herniated, bulging and herniated intervertebral lumbar discs with quantitative apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC). Thirty-two healthy volunteers and 28 patients with back pain or sciatica were examined by MRI. All intervertebral lumbar discs from L1 to S1 were classified according to morphological abnormality and degenerated grades. The ADC values of nucleus pulposus (NP) were measured and recorded. The significant differences about mean ADC values of NP were found between non-bulging/herniated discs and bulging discs as well as herniated discs (P < 0.05), whereas there were no significant differences in ADC values between bulging and herniated discs (P > 0.05). Moreover, statistically significant relationship was found in the mean ADC values of NP between “non-bulging/herniated and non-degenerated discs” and “non-bulging/herniated degenerated discs” as well as herniated discs (P < 0.05). Linear regression analysis between ADC value and disc level revealed an inverse correlation (r = -0.18). The ADC map of the NP is a potentially useful tool for the quantitative assessment of componential and molecular alterations accompanied with lumbar disc abnormalities.